He is 36, but as boyishly exuberant as a 16-year-old and he is currently sitting on top of the theatrical world. His name is Maury Yeston and don’t despair if you didn’t see him win a Tony Award on TV for his score for the hit musical Nine. By some fluke, his award was presented before the telecast, but he is not bitter about that.
“I always like to draw lessons from things that happen,” he says, “and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s my music that wants to be heard and not me as a personality. I was very happy at being accorded the honor of a Tony and I think that not having been seen on the awards show was partially a gift. My work is what’s important and now that it’s been recognized, it will be easier for me to have more of my music heard.”
Although Maury states that his life has not changed since he won a Tony, he does admit that he receives quite a bit of fan mail. “I get letters from strangers,” he says, “who tell me that because of what has happened to me, they believe in their dreams again. They feel inspired knowing that I had a dream for nine years and it finally came true.”
Actually, the dream began in 1963, when the composer was a high school student living in Jersey City, N.J. “I used to go to an art house in Irvington where they showed foreign films,” he recalled. “One day, I saw Fellini’s autobiographical film, 8½, and fell in love with it. I could see the basis of a marvelous Broadway musical in the material.”
Although he didn’t start working on the musical until 1973, the film version haunted him while he pursued his music. His musical roots included a grandfather who was a cantor; his mother, who started him on the piano; and his British-born father, who taught him the ukulele and the English Music Hall tradition.
By the age of five Maury was an accomplished pianist; by six he composed “Hebrew Theme,” a piece that won top prize in a Jewish Community Center competition; and by the time he was in high school, he was writing madrigals and playing jazz in black church basements.
“Until I went to Yale, I was what you might call a concert composer,” says Maury. “In college, I started writing musical theatre material. Years before, I had seen my first Broadway musical—My Fair Lady—and I had decided that I wanted to write shows like that.”
In his sophomore year, Maury applied for a fellowship, stating that he wished to travel around Europe and “soak up music.” He was awarded a Bates Fellowship and got his wish. “I went to England,” he recalls, “then I went to Paris and walked into a small nightclub on the Left Bank. I sat down at the piano and started playing ‘le jazz America.’ They hired me and I earned enough in a few weeks to go to Florence, where I got another job playing piano that paid me even more. By the end of the summer, I had traveled through Southern Italy and gone as far as Athens.”
Upon graduating from Yale, Maury was awarded a two-year Mellon Fellowship to study at Cambridge, where he combined classical composing with musical theatre writing. Back in the U.S., he spent a year teaching the history of jazz and black folk music at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, America’s oldest black college. He next returned to Yale for his doctorate in music and succeeded in becoming Yale’s Director of Undergraduate Studies in Music.
“In 1970, I made an important decision,” says Maury. “I joined the BMI Music Theatre Workshop, headed by Lehman Engel. Lehman was instrumental in my working on the Fellini musical, which I decided to call Nine. It was really the first project that was born in his Workshops. It contains so many of Lehman’s teachings and I’m very, very grateful to him.”
In the Workshop in 1973, Maury wrote the first three songs for Nine: “The Germans At The Spa,” “Guido’s Song,” and “Nine.” The three numbers have been part of the score ever since. “I knew that I had a show,” says Maury, “on the basis of those three songs. I had a fascinating character—Guido Contini, an eminent Italian film director whose creative powers, martial and extramarital affairs are in a state of chaos. I had a big number in a Venetian spa, which gave me a spectacular setting for the show and I had a story that was moving, sentimental and had some depth.”
The composer’s original three songs were showcased by the BMI Workshop in 1974 and attracted the attention of producers Barry Brown and Fritz Holt. They took an option on the musical, but were unable to secure the rights to the property from Fellini.
“At this time,” Maury remembers, “I had written a scene outline, a good deal of the dialogue and the songs, of course. But we all realized we needed a professional book writer. I spoke to every famous book writer in the theatre—including Arthur Laurents and Hugh Wheeler, but they all turned me down. Either they thought it wasn’t a good idea, or hated the movie or felt I was too young.”
Finally, Edward Kleban, the lyricist of A Chorus Line and a member of the BMI Workshop, suggested Italian playwright Mario Fratti. Mr. Fratti was very enthusiastic about the project and spent the next seven years writing a number of treatments of the musical. His libretto was used when Nine was showcased at the O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford, Connecticut, in 1978.
“We were very happy with it there,” Maury states. “A lot of theatre people came to see it, including Mario’s friend Katharine Hepburn. She was so moved by it that she wrote to Fellini and told him that he must give us the rights to his films. She certainly helped our cause.”
The authors next submitted Nine to the annual competition sponsored by the American Academy and Institute of Art and Letters. Their work was chosen the best of 90 original musicals submitted and won the first Richard Rodgers Production Award of $50,000, conferred by the famed composer’s estate. “With that prestigious award to our credit,” Maury says, “I flew to Italy, met with Fellini’s representatives and practically gave them my life’s savings for the film’s rights. Fortunately, I speak Italian and that helped.”
In 1980, Mario Fratti, who lived in the same apartment house as Tommy Tune, succeeded in interesting the choreographer-director in hearing a tape of Nine. Tommy was very excited by the material and asked to meet Maury. After a number of meetings, Tommy decided to join the project as director-choreographer.
“Tommy had some great suggestions,” Maury states. “He recommended that we try to get playwright Arthur Kopit to work on the book.”
It was also Tommy’s idea to do the show with one man—the Italian director played by Raul Julia—and all women. “I had some concern about that,” admits Maury, “because the score had already been showcased with mixed voices and I liked that sound. But I soon realized that I now had a wonderful opportunity to write for women’s ensembles and to create a whole new effect.”
The use of 21 women to portray the varied loves of Guido Contini resulted in an idea that serves as a spectacular overture for this offbeat musical. “Tommy and I decided to start the show with Guido conducting an orchestra composed of the 21 women in his life—as if each were a different instrument in the ensemble. I wrote that overture in one afternoon,” recalls Maury, “without even going to the piano and I have never changed one note of it.”
Finding the right women was a longer process. “I believe we auditioned about 500 women,” says Maury. ‘We were uncompromising in our casting. We wanted—and found—women who could sing impeccably and look ravishing onstage. I think our casting is perfect.”
Tommy now put the musical into workshop production for seven weeks, during which changes were made. “There wasn’t a single terrible fight on this show, which is a miracle for Broadway,” Maury says. “The musical theatre does not have to be a clashing of egos with ugly scenes. We all trusted each other’s work and that’s what you need to do a good show on Broadway.”
One of Nine’s electric moments occurs when Liliane Montevecchi does her “Folies Bergeres” number. “I had lunch with Liliane at the Century Café,” Maury remembers, “and she inspired me to write the ‘Folies’ number on the tablecloth. I took the cloth home with me and the number turned out to be a showstopper.”
At the end of the workshop period, audiences were invited and they were very enthusiastic. Recalls Maury: “Warren Beatty and a lot of other celebrities came and the performances were like those famous gypsy run-throughs. There were no costumes, no props and no fancy lighting—just the material and the performers, but the effect was extraordinary.”
Nine opened at the 46th Street Theatre on the last day of eligibility for Tony Award nominations and was promptly named in 12 categories. It won Tonys for Best Musical, Best Score (Maury Yeston), Best Direction (Tommy Tune), Best Featured Actress (Liliane Montevecchi), and Best Costumes (William Ivey Long). The musical has been a sell-out since it opened.
“Nine really represents my musical roots,” says Maury. “Not only American musical theatre, but black music, European folk and classical music. My heritage and travels are encompassed in it. I also think that Nine is sophisticated, adult entertainment. We’re not afraid to respect our audience’s intelligence.”